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Celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn (Valentino Musumeci) dazzles the crowd in “Chicago: High School Edition.” KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Chicago: High School Edition
Music by John Kander; Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse; Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Based on the play “Chicago” by Maurine Dallas Watkins

Presented by Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts

May 4, 5, 11, 12, 7:30 p.m; May 13, 2 p.m.

The Little Theater, George Inness Annex, 141 Park St.
Tickets at seatyourself.biz/montclairschoolarts or at the door

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

The past has a pull on creative artists. In the 1960s and ’70s, the 1920s and ’30s had a pull on theater artists and screenwriters: “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, “The Sting” in 1973 and “Annie” in 1977. And then there’s “Chicago.”

When John Kander and Fred Ebb debuted the 1975 musical, set in 1926, about jazz baby Roxie Hart who literally gets away with murder, based on a play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins (itself based on a real life trial), it touched a nerve. Anti-heroes and people who get away with things felt right for the time. “Chicago” ran for three years. Today, a 1996 revival is still running on Broadway.

And this weekend, Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts (SVPA) presents “Chicago: High School Edition.”

They are one of the first schools to present this version of the show.

Director Brenda Pepper said she leaped to license it as soon as it became available, as it is a show she has long loved and wanted to do, with its strong roles, especially for women. The play has two strong female leads, Roxie (played by Eve Dillingham) and cabaret singer and accused murderer Velma Kelly (Caroline Graham), and many strong supporting roles.

And just as the 1975 musical reflected its time, this edition does too. Originally, Pepper said, the plan for the set design included silhouettes of the heroines with guns.

After the Valentine’s Day shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, that plan was scrapped. The high school edition of the musical does not have the shooting take place onstage. Of course, the song “We both reached for the gun” is still in, but representations of shootings are not.

Entering the 1920s past is part of the challenge but also part of the fun for the students.

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Harry (Bobby Axelrod) takes notes, with ensemble members Ella Fine, left, and Maggie Borgen in the background. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

For example, the paparazzi covering the famous trial need to use period cameras with flashbulbs. Head of props William Blackman, a senior, had to teach the company how to change the bulbs and use them. Owen Plofker, a senior and the head of lights, took on the challenge of lighting the set in an Art Deco way. “We were going for a very stark, silhouette-y, sharp lighting, to try and contrast and accent the actors,” Plofker said.

The fans waved around celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn are rented and delicate, Blackman explained.

The period Chicago Tribune newspapers, on the other hand, were created in-house. Blackman said the team looked into renting them, but it was just too expensive. “While we are interested in authenticity, the artistic message is most important. The font for the headline, ‘Roxie rocks Chicago,’ is much bigger probably than any headline would be, but it’s like that because when she opens it people in the back of the house need to be able to read it,” Blackman  said.

For Claudia Nketia, who sings with Jazz House Kids Big Band, and plays the matron, this is the first time she’s performed in period dress since a middle school production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Wearing three-inch heels, and a wig, is affecting her performance in a positive way. “I have the whole shebang, a fake cigarette,” she said with a laugh. With some people even dying their hair for the show, audiences can expect big transformations in the actors’ looks, she added.

For Jacob Sailer, who plays Amos Hart, Roxie’s decent and shy husband, the role is a stretch from his previous work with SVPA, where he’s played more gruff types. When he sings “Mr. Cellophane,” a memorable ballad about how nobody notices him (probably deliberately ironically, the song about being forgettable is one of the show’s most memorable tunes), during the last chorus cast members change him onstage into a baggy vaudevillian outfit with a sunflower in his lapel. The stylization and the silliness is one of his favorite moments in the show. Amos, Sailer said, is the moral center of the show.

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Wynn McClenahan (senior, playing Annie) works on eye makeup (with glimpse in mirror in foreground of Georgia Garrison, senior playing Liz). COURTESY STEVE DILLINGHAM

Though nobody loves him in “Chicago,” audiences always do.

“I think the biggest challenge for me was looking at this group of incredibly sweet young girls, and how am I going to transform to make the audience believe? At the time I was watching them at the first rehearsal, and they all have shoulder length brown hair,” director Pepper said.

Some of the girls pin their hair, while others are wearing wigs made by wigmaker Derek Alfano, who also makes wigs for Paper Mill Playhouse.

Danielle Arminio, a professional makeup artist who has done makeup for “Chicago,” is doing makeup for the company, Pepper said. Mary Blackburn created period

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Caroline Graham (Velma) in full wig. COURTESY STEVE DILLINGHAM

costumes.

She loves the music, the Bob Fosse choreography. The show is not really suitable for young children, she said, though they are presenting it in what she hopes is a tasteful way.

And for Pepper, the musical, although 43 years old, is still a sign of the times. “We are living in a time when people with a lot of money and clout can get away with things, pretty severe things,” she said. “And I think this is such a comment on that.”

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